Work in progress is a concept developed by academic and business strategist Michael Porter while at Harvard Business School, and further enhanced by James Womack, who is known as “the father of lean.”

Now known as a Lean Six Sigma metric, the concept is especially relevant in today’s business climate because there is a growing need to address issues within a company’s systems to ensure that the corporate goals for quality, cost savings, customer satisfaction and customer loyalty are being met.

Overview: What is work in progress?

In the context of manufacturing, this term refers to inventory that has entered the manufacturing process, but is not yet a complete product. It is a common source of waste that can be identified and eliminated. As such, it is regarded as an industry metric that businesses can track to optimize processes and workflows, reduce lead times, measure work completed per time period, and identify bottlenecks.

3 drawbacks to having work in progress

There’s a belief that having a moderate amount of WIP that is controlled and managed properly is beneficial, but that amount is subjective, and determining it can cause more problems than it solves. Overall, too much work in progress is unequivocally problematic because it causes a few things.

1. Increased cycle time

WIP takes up time and space as work is passed from one person to another before being finished. In some cases, work might accumulate too much WIP before being shipped or put into the system, making it difficult to work with or find. This forces resources to idle as work waits to be completed.

2. Increased inventory

When work is in progress, it takes up space and resources. This can lead to an increase in inventory, which can be expensive and difficult to manage.

3. Decreased throughput

This is the work completed per work order or unit time. Having work that has yet to be completed will lower the number of items that are finished and delivered into production.

Why is work in progress important to understand?

Understanding and managing this type of work is critical because it enables the organization to easily see how much work remains outstanding to complete a specified process, and where the blockage points lie within the workflow. The result is optimized processes where only the work required is the work that is performed.

An industry example of work in progress

The telecom industry is famous for its workload challenges. A work order often includes multiple steps, but if the work order isn’t completed before one or more outside factors change (such as a customer canceling their service), then work that has been completed cannot be billed to the customer.

When this happens, the work is essentially wasted effort. This adds to costs, which ultimately affects customers because prices are higher than they need to be.

3 best practices when thinking about WIP

These practices are meant to provide guidance on how to reduce inventory, which reduces the amount of work sent back for rework, improves workflow, and raises work quality.

Best practices include the following.

1. Work in progress limits

When work is started on more items than can be completed within the desired cycle time, work slows down while waiting on parts or people. These delays affect all areas of the system and work in a domino effect. Establishing limits keeps the amount of work lower, eliminating inventory and allowing for more predictable lead times.

2. Work batching

Work that is scheduled for completion at specific times eliminates delays caused by large amounts clogging up the systems and waiting for work to be pulled or finished. Batching helps create flow between work centers on the factory floor.

3. Value stream mapping

A value stream map identifies work content, work sequence, and work time required to complete each item between start and stop points, highlighting work that does not add value and work that is done repeatedly.

5S workstation organization and standardized work are other best practices.

3 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about WIP

What can be done to help manage WIP?

It is recommended to work on one work item at a time. Focusing on one thing at a time helps team members work more effectively because they are working on fewer things, which means they can spend less time switching between tasks and completing them faster.

How does moving completed work into storage help with Lean work processes?

This keeps work still needing completion visible so everyone knows what is happening, and interruptions are eliminated which allows people to plan their next steps before other potential interruptions. Teams can work on the next work item in progress, which will help work flow better.

Why does WIP increase even when working in small batches?

It is possible that the work items are even smaller than originally planned, resulting in an increase. It is also possible that working on one item at a time is taking more time to complete than anticipated. Another reason for this could be creating new work items before completing older ones because the team feels pressured to constantly have work progressing, instead of having some idle time between working on work items. Finally, if teams constantly need assistance from others, then there may be work items that are not completed as work is distributed to other team members.

WIP management: a quick win

Work in progress is a tool that can be used to help organizations get ahead at work. When able to identify and eliminate bottlenecks, opportunities for quick wins abound. With the right training, anybody can use this metric to increase productivity and performance in the workplace.

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